Friday, March 28, 2008

    Youth Ministry and the Spiritual Practice of Discernment

    Chap Clark argues in his text "Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers " that the youth of today have, in many ways, been abandoned by adults who are too busy to to spend quality time with adolescents.

    As a result, teens have little understanding of what it means to become an adult and no road map for figuring out how to get to adulthood. These same sentiments were echoed by Mark Yaconelli in a keynote he offered at a recent youth ministry conference I attended. Mark suggested that rather than asking youth "What do you want to be(when you grow up)?" we should be asking them "Who are you becoming?" I'd like to think that this question goes beyond asking youth to simply ponder their future and instead really gets to the heart of the spiritual discipline of discernment -- an intentional practice of discovering who God is calling us to be and how we are called to be part of God's mission in the world. So often we ask youth what job they plan to have some day, where they are going to go to college, how much money they hope to make, but how often do we sit them down and ask "What do you think God wants of your life?"
    A few weeks ago, I asked my youth to start thinking about the question "Who are you becoming?" and this Sunday we'll be trying to work together to begin discerning what that question means for each of us. Here is the road map for how we plan to begin this ongoing process of discernment:

    Starting Out: Wagon Wheel - This opening activity involves sitting on the floor in two circles, with the inner circle facing out and the outer circle facing in, with everyone facing another person. We ask a question, the duo share their answers for a minute, then we say "rotate" and the outer circle people rotate so they are sitting in front of the next person, and we repeat the process. The questions are easier versions of the question we really want them to explore "Who Am I Becoming?" By starting with these simpler questions, we ease ourselves into the conversation and let everyone sort of state where they are "at" right now in their thinking about the future.

    Questions: What do you want to be when you grow up? Where would you like to travel some day? What sort of family would you like to live in 10-20 years from now? What new hobby or skill would you like to have in the future? Where would you hope to live someday?

    Digging In: Searching the Scriptures - Reminding youth that the next question (Who are you becoming?) is our real focus for the study, invite the group to take a quick look at two passages where Jesus is discerning his own identity and calling.

    In Luke 2: 41-52, Jesus' parents are searching for him and are surprised to find him in the Temple sitting amongst the teachers and when they ask what he's doing, he answers "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Ask: What might this passage tell us about how Jesus was coming to understand himself and his identity? What can you already know about yourself at such an early age? What thoughts or experiences that you've had might suggest you have begun already to discern a calling from God for your lives?

    In Matthew: 16: 13-20 Jesus poses this question to his disciples "Who do you say that I am?" In what ways have others helped you to understand who you are/your identity/your gifts/your calling? What might be the advantages of inviting others to help you answer this question for yourself?

    Going Deeper: Creating a Mandala - As a way to help the youth think about their own sense of who they are becoming, invite them to create a mandala, an ancient spiritual practice that aids meditation. Youth will be given a sheet of paper with a large circle divided into sections. Working in silence, in one section they will write words, symbols or images that reflect their spiritual life. In another section, they will express symbols and words that represent parts of their life that they consider separate from their spiritual being (Note: Though I would personally consider everything to be part of my spiritual life, clearly we do not always view things that way. Some youth may want to depict images or words that overlap these two sections of the mandala.) In one inner circle they reflect on their hoped for future and in the most inner circle they draw or write something that represents their understanding/relationship with God. This activity could be done strictly with pencil and paper or could involve a myriad of artistic elements such as paint, beads, feather, sand, magazine images, and so on.

    After 20 or 30 minutes, come back together and invite those who are willing to share reflections on the activity of creating the mandala, what thoughts or awarenesses came to them during the meditation, and how they might begin to answer the question "Who am I becoming?" Ask: What do you notice about how you grouped things in your design? What does your mandala say about you as a person? Where does God fit into your design? What might be missing? It will be important during this process to affirm whatever the youth choose to share and to maintain an atmosphere of respect and thoughtfulness.

    Closing: Perhaps invite youth to write a short note to themselves, sharing their thoughts for this moment in time about how they have begun to discern the call of God in their lives. Save these letters and return them to the youth in a few months as a reminder to them to continue this process of discernment.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008

    What if You Graded Your Youth?

    My former life as a school teacher came rushing back to me yesterday as I pondered a crazy thought: What if I sent home a report card each semester to the parents of my youth? What if it included grades for my youth in such areas as attendance, participation, biblical literacy, application of skills learned, ability to articulate one's faith, prayer life, outreach/mission efforts. Would parents be shocked? Would the youth know what to make of it? How might such an evaluation help a youth minister to determine how effective she is being in reaching and teaching teens? How would you even begin to evaluate/grade such areas of one's spiritual growth? Would anyone ever be brave enough to give it a try?


    Rethinking Church Camp Pt. 3

    Lately, we’ve been rethinking church camp. Like many of us, I’ve developed a growing interest over the past few years in contemplative ministry and prayer. This weekend I read the book Be Still: Designing and Leading Contemplative Retreats, by Jane Vennard. Jane is an ordained minister in the U.C.C. She has led numerous retreats and teaches prayer and spirituality at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.

    In her book, Jane offers several different retreat models. What if we had a weekend retreat for our youth that looked like this?

    Day 1
    7:30 Breakfast
    8:30 The Experience of Prayer
    10:00 Break
    10:15 Learning New Ways to Pray
    12:00 Lunch and personal prayer/relaxation
    3:30 Listening to God
    5:30 Dinner
    7:00 Praying with the Bible
    8:30 Evening prayers (concluding with silence until the following morning)

    Day 2
    7:00 Morning Prayers
    7:30 Breakfast
    8:30 A Theology of Prayer
    10:00 Break
    10:15 Intercessory Prayer
    11:30 Closing prayer

    This is just one of many examples. Of course, each retreat would need to be tailored to your group. I’m seriously thinking of doing this with some of my older youth.

    Has anyone tried anything similar?


    Monday, March 24, 2008

    Self-Serve Youth Ministry Link Dispenser

    Who Needs Youth Ministers Anyway? Dan Mayes has written an interesting post on his church's efforts to offer a youth ministry program even in the absence of a youth minister on staff. Definitely worth a read.

    Easter Goes On! The Easter season just got started last Sunday. Why not challenge your youth to continue thinking about the meaning of the resurrection with this creative activity from Grahame at the Insight blog.

    Girls, Sex, and STD's - Shelby Knox, subject of an excellent PBS documentary on her efforts to bring sex ed to her small town high school, shares her thoughts on the recent report that one in every four teen girls has an STD.

    your blog!
    Check out this nifty little tool that's like an animated whiteboard for your blog. Using a "You Tube" style video, easily illustrate a concept or story with sketches, words and audio.

    Indiana Jones is Back?
    - Which movies will your youth be talking about this summer? Stuart has a quick way to check out the latest previews for this coming summer's hopeful blockbusters.

    Cell Phone Recycling as Youth Mission Project
    - Your youth probably get a new cell phone every year, at the least. But tossing your old phone hurts the environment and even encourages civil war in Africa. Find out more here and check out the long list of organizations that will help you recycle your old cell phone and help the planet.

    Church Camp is Coming!
    If you are like me, the spectre of church camp is now starting to loom large on the horizon. This site is crammed packed with free camp resources such as team building games, art project ideas, camp songs, skits, and more.

    Terra Naomi's "Say It's Possible"

    One of my youth shared this video with me and I thought I'd pass it on to you. -- Brian

    " I see the lights are turning
    And i look outside the stars are burning
    Through this changing time
    It could have been anything we want
    Its fine salvation was just a passing thought.

    Dont wait act now
    This amazing offer wont last long
    Its only a chance to pave the path were on
    I know there are more exciting things to talk about
    And in time well sort it out

    And though they say its possible to me
    I dont see how its probable
    I see the course were on
    Spinning farther from what i know
    Ill hold on
    Tell me that you wont let go
    Tell me that you wont let go"

    Friday, March 21, 2008


    I'm preparing to join my youth for the 30 Hour Famine this weekend, which will include participation in a prayer vigil, Good Friday worship service, art projects, silence, a film, and time spent focusing on our role in addressing the problems of world hunger. We will break our fast tomorrow at lunchtime with communion and a meal provided by one of our youth sponsors.


    Thursday, March 20, 2008

    Pew Forum Survey on Religion & Public Life

    Have you seen the most recent findings of the Pew survey regarding religion in the U.S.? They don't paint a pretty picture:

    The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
    And then there's this:

    In addition to detailing the current religious makeup of the U.S. and describing the dynamic changes in religious affiliation, the findings from the Landscape Survey also provide important clues about the future direction of religious affiliation in the U.S. By detailing the age distribution of different religious groups, for instance, the survey findings show that more than six-in-ten Americans age 70 and older (62%) are Protestant but that this number is only about four-in-ten (43%) among Americans ages 18-29. Conversely, young adults ages 18-29 are much more likely than those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% vs. 8%). If these generational patterns persist, recent declines in the number of Protestants and growth in the size of the unaffiliated population may continue.
    We are certainly wading deep into the waters of post-denominationalism. Perhaps, like Europe, we are moving towards becoming a post-Christian nation as well. Maybe this is not such a bad development. Perhaps when we are no longer part of the dominant culture, we will be freed to embrace the radical path that we claim in our gospels. Perhaps then we will have something to lift up to our youth that really does propose a different way from what the world around them is offering. More findings from the survey here.

    Image of the Day: Passover

    Detail of Alois Lang's interpretation of da Vinci's The Last Supper. Photo taken by my colleague, Ron, and is just one of the many great images he shares on his photoblog.

    Wednesday, March 19, 2008

    Youth Ministry and Confronting Empire

    Both our morning worship and our youth group Bible study this past Sunday focused on the choice offered to us by the Palm Sunday story. What is the choice?

    Borg and Crossan, in their recent text The Last Week, lay out the choice as they describe an interesting historical picture of that first Palm Sunday. On one side of Jerusalem you have Jesus, a humble peasant rabbi, entering on the back of a donkey, flanked by the poor who lay branches and clothing at his feet. On the other side of town, you may likely experience the entrance of Pontius Pilate, entering Jerusalem to help keep the peace during the volatile Passover observance. Pilate would have entered riding on a decorated chariot or atop a powerful warrior steed. He would have been flanked by Roman soldiers, carrying their weapons and the flag of the empire. And if the peasants were throwing anything at his feet, it would have been their own weapons as a sign of their total submission to the Roman Empire.

    The question before us then: Which procession would you choose to be part of -- the procession of the peasants following the humble rabbi, or the procession that represents all the power, influence, and benefits of the Empire? This is the choice we should put before our youth: Which empire do you choose? The Empire of the World (and it's promise of success, power, $$$) or the Empire of God (and it's way of humility, sacrifice, challenge, submission). And yes, I do think it's an either-or choice. Not a both-and.


    Today marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. As I often tell my youth, war may at times be necessary but that doesn't make it right. War is always evidence of the sin and brokenness of our human condition and is always contrary to the world as God's way of love and peace would have it be.

    Monday, March 17, 2008


    As I mentioned in a recent post, I want to begin thinking out loud about a different approach to church camp, one that is less program and activity-driven. But before we begin to consider what it could mean to "rethink" church camp, it might be helpful to consider why there is even a need to look for a new direction. Why fix what isn't broken? Isn't camp supposed to be about games, crafts, sports, campfires, and crazy team activities? Consider the church camp experience shared by the writer of the Messy Christian blog. Near as I can tell, she is talking about a church camp for adults, but everything she shares could equally apply to church camp for youth:

    Frankly, I don’t really enjoy church camps . . . . I find the manufactured togetherness exhausting at best, and the effort of smiling and being cheerful all the time is also taxing. Not that I don’t have fun during church camp, but at the back of my mind is always this question, “Why
    am I doing this?” And there’s always this feeling that building real relationships is still out of my reach despite all the fun we’re having….

    I find church camps to be pressure cookers. I hate participating in the games the most. I’m really anti-social during church camps and go all out to avoid all team sports games and people will probably think I’m some kind of sour puss (which I probably am). What I long for is a church camp that is not so frantic with the need TO DO SOMETHING. I also feel such a pressure to conform at a time when I don’t want to conform so badly. (If you don’t play in the games, people will think you’re not part of the team, when all you want to do is just watch and relax a little.)

    So yeah, people who think too much probably won’t have a swell time at church camps. The best church camp I had was with DUMC, where I basically did some reading at the beach, some mingling with a couple of
    friends, and listening to a talk or two and lots and lots of just sitting around staring at the sea. I refused to participate in any of the games, and frankly, if anyone forced me, I would’ve thrown something at them. And it was a great, healing time!

    I think the explanation is simple. Because I lead such a hectic life as a journalist, rushing from deadline to deadline, appointment to appointment, participate in all kinds of press conferences, watch exciting shows, meet all kinds of people etc, when you’re on a holiday, you want to do the opposite. You want to be silent, and slow down. You want to be selfish.You I don’t want to be part of any thing. You don’t want to get excited. You want to do nothing, be with God alone without the distraction …I wish there was a church camp like that. Where I can just retreat somewhere beautiful with some friends and think and write about God.
    Do these thoughts resonate with you and the experience you have had at camp? Can you imagine youth at your camps who might feel just this way? I think these sentiments do a great job of laying out the challenges. Next, we'll start considering the options that might offer a different way of doing camp.

    Movie Review: Rocket Science

    I can't quite figure out how the hilarious film "Rocket Science" was so overlooked when it was released last year. It deserved every bit as much attention as the excellent "Juno" received, yet for some reason it didn't quite find an audience. Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz (who's directed episodes of "The Office" and the great documentary Spellbound), the film centers on the character of Hal Hefner, a stuttering, awkward teenage boy who looks like he wishes he could just disappear from the face of the earth. Hal has to contend with his dysfunctional parents, an angry shoplifting brother, weird friends, ineffective teachers, and a whole host of obnoxious peers at school.

    Things take a turn for Hal when one of the stars of the school debating team, overachiever Ginny Ryerson, adopts Hal as her "project" -- she wants to transform him into a powerhouse debate partner who will help her win the state championship. Along the way, of course, Hal falls for Ginny and undergoes some heartbreak when he learns her true motives. Like Juno, this film is a slice-of-high-school-life that almost always rings true, offering up teenagers who are really like the kids we work with every week. And best of all - the film doesn't tie up all the loose ends or follow some old formula like turning the nerd into a Prince Charming. The movie keeps it real, reminding us just how hard it is to be a teenager.

    Saturday, March 15, 2008

    More Creative Prayer Ideas

    A recent visitor to the blog tipped us off to the website Creative Prayer which offers many ideas for incorporating contemplative prayer stations into worship experiences. The stations come in many forms and tap into different learning styles and senses. I particularly liked the one that challenges participants to form prayers, either individually or as a group, while sitting at a table covered with Scrabble letters. We do quite a bit with center-based worship in our youth ministry and it is very successful with the students. They enjoy the freedom of moving about freely and having some choice in the worship experience, rather than every movement and response being dictated by a preplanned litugy or order of worship. In addition, these creative prayer stations access the brain and body on all sorts of levels, inviting us into a more complete worship experience than in the traditional "sit and listen" style of worship we are all familiar with in most churches.

    Friday, March 14, 2008

    Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) Hosanna


    I just finished reading a really fascinating novella, written in the 1960's, entitled Behold the Man. This Nebula Award-winning sci-fi fantasy, authored by Michael Moorcock, poses the question "Which came first: Jesus the man or Jesus the myth?" Now, before I lose some of our readers too quickly, let me point out that we are using the term myth here in the sense of "a truth that speaks to a deeper understanding of our human identity." Moorcock's story follows Karl Glogauer, a Jew in name only, who travels back in time from the year 1970 to the year 28 A.D. in search of the historical Jesus. Glogauer is determined to prove to his psychiatrist girlfriend that Jesus was more than just a patchwork of myths that birthed a religion. He does eventually find Jesus, and to his shock discovers (spoiler alert!) that he is so mentally challenged that all he is able to do is repeat his name over and over. Glogauer is devastated. How is it possible that this imbecile is the instigator of the Christian movement? He realizes he has only one choice -- to live out the life of Jesus himself and make the myth a reality. And so he begins playing out the major events of the gospel stories (sometimes inadvertently) knowing all along that they are pushing him headlong toward an agonizing death at the hands of the Romans.

    Would it surprise you to know that at the time the book was first published it received good reviews in both the Jewish and Catholic press (and a few death threats for the author from folks in Texas)? Many saw it as a speculative take on what it truly means to "follow the way of Jesus." How many of us would really be willing to enact the actual path of the Jesus story, knowing where it would end up?

    And I'm curious about one other thing. What do you suppose would happen if you asked your youth "What if it turned out that the man Jesus never existed? What if the story and all it says about God is absolute "truth" but the historical details are less than accurate? Would you still be a Christian? What if the real point of the gospels (and I think you could really make this argument for Mark's gospel) is not to point us toward the man, but rather to encourage us to walk the path that the man walks? How important is it to know which came first, the man or the myth?



    One of the best outcomes of the recent youth ministry conference I attended was affirmation from some of my colleagues about a question I've been thinking about for almost a year: "Is it time to rethink church camp?"
    Is it time to critique the same sort of program-driven approach to church camp that many of us have been critiquing for some time now in our congregationally-based youth ministries? Is there another way to "be" church camp without the constant focus on activity, activity, activity? I'm happy to report that some folks started asking that question long before it ever popped into my head and they've already begun to make the shift to a more thoughtful approach to church camp.

    I have to admit that the model of church camp that I primarily utilize is one I inherited from those who mentored me in the ways of "doing" camp. Having never gone myself as a youth, my only experience of church camp has been as an adult. And although there is much positive to be said about the model I inherited, it is inherently program-driven. Every moment of the day is scheduled with keynotes, family group, Bible study, arts and crafts, creek walks, sports, swimming, worship, campfire, and those big evening events that often result in half the camp covered in chocolate pudding! As they say on Seinfeld, "Not that there's anything wrong with that," but I knew in my gut that there could be more. And I felt strongly that one possible key to this "more" might be the contemplative approach to youth ministry that Mark Yaconelli promotes through his books and the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP) and that youth ministry guru Randy Kuss promotes in his God @ Center retreats.

    So coming in the next several days will be several suggestions for just what a contemplative approach to church camp might look like. But we would love to hear your thoughts on this, too. How do we slow down the "activity" at camp to make room for youth to hear the still small voice of God?

    Monday, March 10, 2008

    Retreating with Mark Yaconelli

    Jacob and I have just returned from a Disciples Youth Ministry Network event, a national gathering of Disciples of Christ Youth pastors held this past week in Florida. Being in a room full of youth ministers, I was taken back to an experience I had in 10th grade when the school paper wanted to include my twin brother and I in a photo story they were doing on all the twins in the high school. One afternoon they gathered us all for a group photo and as I looked around at this room full of duplicates, all I could think of was "what a bunch of freaks we are!" Flash forward 25 years and here I am in a room full of Disciples youth pastors and again find myself thinking "What a bunch of freaks we are!" But in a good way, of course! Any time I get together with other youth folk, I'm reminded what a rare breed we are and what a rare calling we have received.

    In a way, this was very much the theme of the keynotes offered up by Mark Yaconelli over the course of the three day conference. In addition to covering some of the content of his latest text, Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark called on us to reflect on our call to youth ministry. I particularly appreciated his observation that one aspect of that call is disillusionment. In other words, part of following the call to youth ministry involves letting go of our small images of God, our expectations of the Church, and our stereotypes of the teenagers since each has the potential of limiting our ministry. Being open to the experience of disillusionment frees us to receive whatever God might be trying to do through us and those we serve. I can name a few of the illusions I've had to cast off over the years:
    • Expecting that all teens come to youth group to learn about faith.
    • Expecting all adults in the church to embrace teens with open arms.
    • Expecting the church to change as fast as the youth ministry does.
    • Expecting parents to put youth group at the top of their teen's list of priorities.
    • Expecting that, if I stick with it long enough, I'll finally have a handle on this youth ministry thing!
    What illusions have you had to let go of in order to flourish in youth ministry?

    Monday, March 03, 2008

    Please Stand By...

    Jacob and I are off this week to sunny (we hope) Florida for a gathering of Disciples of Christ youth ministers. Our keynoter for the conference is Mark Yaconelli, author of Contemplative Youth Ministry and Growing Souls, so we hope to have some good things to share with you on our return. Until then, we encourage you to take time to explore some of our favorite youth ministry blogs by checking out the LINKS tab above. Peace!


    Youth Prayer Nite!

    Prayer was the focus of our youth gathering this past Sunday night, utilizing in part the resources from the Way to Live website and the excellent curriculum "People of Prayer - An Evening of Creative Prayer for Young People" provided by Grahame at the Insight youth ministry blog. In addition, we challenged the youth to work in teams to take Jesus' model for prayer, the Lord's Prayer, and write their own version of the prayer in language that was meaningful to them. The evening culminated with a time of center-based worship in our chapel. Youth were invited to move about the chapel in silence, experiencing several different prayer stations (including several of the creative prayer ideas in our recent "Artful Prayers") post:
    • Prayer Station 1: Friends and Family - Youth wrote prayers for the people in their lives and placed them in a cross taped to the floor (see above - one of the creative ideas from Insight!)
    • Prayer Station 2: Creation - Youth sat in mini-garden in our chapel, listened to running water and offered prayers of thanks for the blessings of creation.
    • Prayer Station 3: Anger - Youth read psalms that express anger and challenge to God (such as Psalm 88: 12-18) and then they were invited, graffiti-style on paper posted on a wall, to write their own prayers of anger for the injustice in the world.
    • Prayer Station 4: You! - Youth used tinfoil to craft symbols of prayers related to their own personal needs.
    • Prayer Station 5: Forgiveness -Youth were challenged to think back over the mistakes of the past week, to write a word or symbol in sand representing those failures, and then to pass their hand through the sand, obliterating those words or symbols as a sign of accepting God's forgiveness.